Colin Wilson novel 'kept me sane in Syrian prison'
A Syrian writer who was a political prisoner for nine years under the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the late father of the current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, has told how reading Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho – one of only three books shared between 70 inmates – ‘opened the doors of prison’ for him.
It’s a moving story that Hassan Bahri (pictured) tells – and one that coincided with a new edition of Adrift in Soho published by Five Leaves. Adrift in Soho was Colin’s second novel, originally published in 1961, and now part of a new ‘Beatniks, Bums and Bohemians’ series.
Hassan says reading (in an Arabic edition) kept him sane and gave him the desire to live, especially in London’s Soho, if he survived prison, which he did. He became a UK citizen and moved to Soho in 2005, although life was not easy for him. He had very little work, none regular, and the love of his life, Alla Mirochnik, a Ukrainian whom he met in Kiev while at university there, died in January 2012 of pancreatic cancer (Hassas and Alla are pictured below).
Held prisoner from July 1983 to December 1991, Hassan was detained first in Tadmor Prison, near the ruins of ancient Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage site, and then in Sednaya Prison. Adrift in Soho was a way for Hassan’s mind, if not his body, to escape – 'a guide to a mysterious place full of theatres, and the book became a code to which hundreds of Tadmor prisoners still refer when they talk about the time they were allowed access to books from the prison library,' he said.
'I became involved in tricky things: politics and love'
Hassan was a bright student from a beautiful village in Syria. His father sold a precious cow to enable him to study engineering at Latakia University, and Hassan was awarded a scholarship to study at Kiev in the then Soviet Union. He said: 'I became involved there in tricky things: politics and love. The first led to a decade in a Syrian prison where I studied languages and dreamed of many things, one of them to be “adrift” with Alla in Soho. A decade after my release, I came to London, hoping to meet up with my love again and fulfill my dream.'
Released under a general amnesty by the Syrian government, Hassan arrived in Britain in 2001 to seek a new life and, in 2005, actually found a place to live in Soho. He acquired a British passport in 2006, and later invited Alla to join him, only to lose her again a few years later, sadly this time forever.
Hassan translated English articles for Arabic journals, had a short story collection published through Exiled Writers INK, and contributed short stories for the Edinburgh Book Festival. One of his stories, was read on BBC Radio 4 as part of a series intended to reflect the experiences of immigrants who have sought sanctuary in Britain over the past 60 years.
However, it wasn't long before his prison experiences led him to seek help at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture at its Islington centre, and to join its Write to Life creative writing group where the London novelist and playwright Leslie Forbes became his writing mentor. Hassan carried out some work for Leslie on a variety of projects: as an actor in a play of hers, as a teacher and as a friend.
'For my latest novel,' said Leslie, 'he is "becoming" the storyteller of modern Middle Eastern history. Like most novelists, though, I can't pay much, and despite his willingness to work very hard for little money, and his extraordinary ability to translate the humour and spirit of one culture for another, Hassan remains an outsider in England.'
* Below is Hassan’s autobiographical Right to Dream, inspired by Adrift in Soho, which he wrote for a 2004 publication by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. While one might think Hassan chose this title as an allusion to Colin Wilson’s 2004 autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose, or to Colin’s 1962 book The Strength to Dream, or even both, this is not the case, but an odd coincidence.
Right to dream
They called it ‘Palmyra’, a land of palm trees, with a big oasis. Nearby are some famous ruins, where the invading Roman Emperor Diocletian pitched camp on the rubble of his defeated enemy’s palace.
Not far away is another camp, built by the French army at the beginning of the twentieth century for their horses and foot-soldiers. Like the Romans before them, the French eventually left. The relics of the ancient past became Syria’s most famous tourist attraction. But the more recent – and less picturesque – relics of the French camp were turned into a big prison, where political detainees are locked in
the former stables, behind heavy doors and walls pierced with small windows, under a faint yellow light.
In that black abyss many lives withered away unconsoled, and thousands of vigorous dreams vanished, shattered against those yellow walls as they tried to reach loved ones far away, in cities and villages of broken dreams. But in there, more than two years after we arrived, we finally had access to some books from the prison ‘library’.
Prison, the master of annihilation, can kill even books. It gave these books its muted yellow colour. Mites feasted on their pages, and moisture eroded them. Nevertheless, the great thoughts captured in written words refused to die away, resisting many years of oblivion, waiting for us, as we waited for them.
If the importance of books can be measured by their impact on the reader, those books were the best. Three books, three breaks in the walls, gave meaning to our empty days, and a new horizon to our shared existence, already losing its pulse.
The first book was from the Andalucian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the second was The Bridge over the Drina by the Bosnian writer Ivo Andric. And the third, Adrift in Soho, by the English writer, Colin Wilson.
We were about seventy men in there, in a stable re-named a ‘ward’, half of us teachers and doctors, as many graduates of foreign universities. All eager to read whatever was readable. At first, when we arrived, everyone was anxious to talk, to exchange ideas, to show off their relative wealth in the currency of the mind. But after a year of full-time lectures and heated disputations, when all the information
had been exchanged in all directions, from personal details to every fact we possessed, we settled down into stagnation. You speak – I know what you’re going to say. I have a thought – you know what it is. All knowledge has been evenly distributed, everybody knows everything everybody else knows.
Eventually, we were even dreaming alike. Dreaming of each other. Even in your dreams, the others are you, are inside you and there with you. In dreams you visit your family home with your fellow inmates, and after the visit you can’t forget to return to the ward. The freed souls are reminded of their earthly bodies behind
bars. So people killed time looking for new discoveries, new information anywhere. ‘Okay, I’ll read the lines on your hand, on your face, I’ll even interpret the intricacies of your dreams’. A kind of struggle against death.
When the books came, it was a new injection of life, of air, to refresh our stagnation. Everybody tried to read as into them as much as possible, to get out of them everything he could – even things the author didn’t know were there. Three books – seventy readers. We divided up the days from six in the morning until twelve at night, and made a schedule for who would read which, in what order. And suddenly a change came over our lives; they centred round those books. Lucky the man who was ten pages ahead of another; he knew better, and
more. We ran seminars about the books, and suddenly people who worked in their previous lives as teachers or professors – and as I said, there were many of us – found a way of reminding the others how successful they’d been in their careers.
And always there were people competing to get ahead. A group of us
would take a nap by day, and wake up at three or four in the morning to win a book and two or three hours of free reading, while the others lay, rolled up in their military blankets like long rows of mummies, or sardines in a huge can.
In that mysterious air with its faint yellow light, I opened the doors of prison to find myself hand in hand with Colin Wilson, walking in the heart of London, being introduced to the secretive streets of Soho. Sure, I still remember that corner where I sat, a breath of blue in my mood, with my friend Colin. And we smoked, and he invited me to watch the passers-by, and wonder why they go where they’re told,
and what freedom can mean in this pointless life.
So when, finally, for the first time ever, a plane touched down on the runway at Heathrow with me among its passengers, London was a place I knew. I was eager to see Soho, to kill my dream with reality. Eager, too, to be in the freest place in the world, Speakers’ Corner, eager to see the theatres, and the museums which still house most of the Palmyrian Queen Zenobia’s treasures. I thought my reference point would be Speakers’ Corner. I would recognise it as soon as I saw it.It must surely be huge, long and wide and crowded with firebrands. And Soho would not be far from there.
I knew the Soho streets, I had strolled them before, with him, when my body was still locked up. I knew London through a lover who wrote about her with that touch of bitterness, that sense of deception and failure, of a great romantic who somehow cannot get satisfaction from his beloved. That was the dream. In reality, I spent the first year looking at underground maps, drawing and connecting grids of lines between refugee centres, the Home Office, solicitors, tube stations and my hostel.
The second year added some colleges and schools, and new hostels, changing the points where the lines converged. But the third year forced me to forget all those places and map London all over again,with new lines leading from Councils, housing agencies, yet more solicitors and benefits offices to ever-changing addresses in bad-smelling hostels.
Even letters had difficulty in finding me. And some of them eventually gave up. I was adrift indeed, not in Soho with Colin, but on the way to yet another hostel. And London
rejected me, before I had a chance to add my name to her neglected lovers.
* Right to Dream was first published by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in 2004.